Is Ahok Still the Best Choice for Jakarta?

By Dr. Bambang Irawan | 5 December 2016

President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) recently spoke before an audience of CEOs of 100 publicly listed companies. The key message was ‘optimism.’ He assured the market that despite the current unsupportive global economic conditions and some domestic situations, particularly those surrounding the upcoming election of the governor of Jakarta, the government of Indonesia continues to work and do business as usual, proceeding with the already approved economic plans and policies. Jokowi has been known to be a strong supporter of the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or more popularly known as Ahok. Ahok, who is a non-Muslim and of Chinese descent, replaced Jokowi as governor when Jokowi became president. Like Jokowi, Ahok is known as a tough administrator who is so against corruption, collusion and nepotism (korupsi, kolusi dan nepotisme, or KKN) that he had angered many old bureaucrats who still do their business the old way. KKN are the worst legacies of the Suharto administration, which ended in 1998, but have been very difficult to fight and they have become the worst nightmare in the efforts to establish clean governance in Indonesia.

Jokowi was a businessman before he entered politics and became the mayor of Solo, Central Java. His good reputation earned him a candidacy to be the governor of Jakarta, which he easily won with Ahok as his running mate. Both then made many breakthroughs, aiming at creating a clean government, who is committed to developing and making Jakarta a better place. The positive impacts that the Jakarta people felt during Jokowi’s governorship propelled him further as a presidential candidate in the election two years ago following the end of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) presidency. Jokowi won convincingly and Ahok subsequently became the next, current governor of Jakarta. Ahok has continued efforts set out by Jokowi and himself for Jakarta, and won support from the citizens of the capital. The difference is, while Jokowi is known for his low-key, Javanese style of speaking, Ahok is a lot more brash and confident, bordering arrogant, when addressing the public and especially his staff. Most Jakartans don’t really care as long as he gets the job done, but it has angered many local and central politicians who are offended by his comments. Given the fact that he is a non-Muslim, many of them have tried to use religious issues to attack him, although a number of Muslim scholars defend him, saying that he has done so much for the Muslim community in Jakarta.

The recent problem for Ahok started when he, as part of the campaign for the upcoming election, was addressing the Jakarta community residing in the Thousand Islands regency, north of Jakarta. There he encouraged them not to vote for him if they didn’t wish to and asked that they be free from anyone trying to influence them using a verse in the Holy Quran that asks Muslims not to choose non-Muslim leaders. The video and transcript of the speech by Ahok went viral within days and triggered reactions from everyone, some condemning and some supporting him. Those who condemned him, particularly the Islam hardliners, believed that what he said was a blasphemy towards the Holy Quran and that Ahok must be tried for it. The situation was worsened when the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia or MUI) released a legal opinion or decision, or ‘fatwa’ that indeed what Ahok said was a blasphemy on the Holy Quran. The fatwa spurred the Islam hardliners to conduct a rally, organized by the Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), in early November, asking for Ahok’s trial for the alleged blasphemy. While Ahok himself has apologized and claimed that he had no ill-intention towards the Holy Quran or the Muslim community of Indonesia, that did not stop the demonstration from taking place in Jakarta.

The demonstration was participated by members and leaders of the FPI, and several prominent political figures who are known to oppose president Jokowi since he rose to power a couple of years ago. The rally then also made references to the president, saying that he was protecting the man who was accused of being the ‘enemy’ of Muslims. Given the nature of the rally, it was alleged that the demonstration also was an effort to overthrow president Jokowi, driven by his political enemies. The situation has been worse for Ahok, who is now elevated as a suspect in the blasphemy case by the Indonesian Police Force. While his status has not eliminated him from continuing to run for the Jakarta governorship, it remains to be seen how it will affect his overall electability, especially during the election day in February next year.

Currently, there are three couple running for the seats of governor and deputy governor of Jakarta. Their profiles are available below.

Contestant Number Candidates1
Deputy Governor
Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono
  • Son of former president SBY
  • Resigned from the Army (highest rank: major)
  • Deployed to the conflict zone in Lebanon when a war took place between Israel and Hezbollah
  • Has three master's degree from NTU (Singapore), Harvard and Webster Universities (USA)
Sylviana Murni
  • Worked under Ahok as assistant to the governor on tourism and culture
  • Formerly mayor of Central Jakarta
  • Holds a doctorate in education from the Jakarta State University
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok)
  • The incumbent governor of Jakarta
  • Previously deputy governor under governor Jokowi
  • Formerly regent of the East Belitung regency, his birthplace
  • Holds a master's degree in management from Prasetiya Mulya University (Jakarta)
Djarot Saiful Hidayat
  • Formerly mayor of Blitar, East Java
  • Joined Ahok as his deputy governor of Jakarta in December 2014
  • Earned his master's degree in political science from Gajah Mada University (Jogjakarta)
Anies Rasyid Baswedan
  • Was supporter of Jokowi during the presidential election in 2014, and selected as Minister of Education and Culture before being replaced in the cabinet reshuffle in July 2016
  • Initiator of the Indonesia Mengajar initiative that sends scholars to teach in remote areas throughout Indonesia
  • Formerly rector of Paramadina University (Jakarta)
  • Holds a doctorate in political science from Northern Illinois University (USA)
Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno
  • Known previously as a successful businessman, founder of Saratoga Capital, one of the richest people in Indonesia
  • Has an MBA from George Washington University (USA)

For the election next year, Ahok initially intended to run as an independent (without the backing of any political party) and his supporting volunteers, known as Teman Ahok, or Friends of Ahok, were able to collect one million ID cards (Jakarta) as proof that they support his candidacy. However, Ahok then realized that he still needed support from the political elites and decided to run as a candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan, or PDI-P), former president Megawati’s party.  PDI-P then formed a coalition with three other parties to nominate Ahok for governor of Jakarta.

As the incumbent governor, especially prior to the blasphemy case, Ahok constantly topped any polls. Progress of Jakarta under his governorship has been remarkable, ranging from access to health and education facilities for the poor; development of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system to tackle traffic problems; improvement of cleanliness in Jakarta, including green areas, parks, and rivers; improvement of services to the people of Jakarta, making it easy and free (as it should be); to fighting corruption within the provincial government offices to establish good and clean governance in the capital. One can easily say that he, and formerly Jokowi, were the best governors that Jakarta has ever had. As mentioned above, Ahok has not been diplomatic in his way of doing things, but that didn’t stop the Jakartans from supporting him, as they had been fed up with the rampant corruption that still existed.

Recently though, the public sentiment has changed. Due to the case, with the Muslim radicals pushing for his trial, Ahok’s electability has slipped and his position is no longer as strong as it used to be. While he can encourage the voters to look at his achievements before voting, citing that verse from the Holy Quran was really unnecessary as it could easily be used against him, being a Chinese ethnic and non-Muslim. That was a blunder that should not have been committed if he had remembered how his political enemies were constantly trying to topple him. Following the rally earlier this month, the FPI is organizing another demonstration on 2 December, demanding for his trial and punishment. Nonetheless, it is believed that Ahok remains a favorite candidate and most Jakartans still believe that the city province will be better under his leadership. The demonstrations are participated by Muslim radicals who are mostly not residents of Jakarta and therefore will have no say during the election.

Agus Yudhoyono was a well-respected military officer but his military career was cut short at the insistence of his father, the leader of the Democrat Party, who nominated him to be their candidate. SBY’s relationship with Jokowi has been described as warm most of the time, and icy at times. Both being Javanese, they are soft-spoken and tend to be polite. However, Jokowi’s tendency to blame SBY’s past presidency for anything wrong in his own administration has often angered SBY. In addition, Jokowi has become closer to Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya, or Gerindra), his rival at the presidential election 2014. SBY and Prabowo are known to not get along well, ever since both were at the military academy. This could be seen as Jokowi’s efforts to strengthen his position among the political elites. SBY, being still quite strong politically, but unable to run as president again due to the constitution, feels the need to find a political heir, and the best choice is his own son, whom he can fully trust. Promotion of Agus to challenge Ahok has been seen as a representation of SBY’s intention to challenge Jokowi, who fully supports his close friend Ahok.

During the last presidential election, Anies Baswedan was a strong supporter of Jokowi, who criticized Prabowo frequently. However, this time he has agreed to partner with Sandiaga Uno who is backed by Prabowo’s party to challenge Ahok, after being sacked by Jokowi from his cabinet earlier this year. Anies is known as an intellectual with deep concern towards quality of education and schools, yet his move to agree to challenge Ahok indicates that a falling out with the current government may have taken place. There is speculation that the real reason Jokowi does not want him in the cabinet is because he has his own ambition to become president in the next election in 2019. Sandiaga Uno is the most outspoken among the three candidates for deputy governor, probably because he initially was nominated by Prabowo to be the candidate of governor from Gerindra. However, being a big businessman and a tycoon, Sandiaga does not have strong support at the grass-root level and eventually agreed to be Anies’ running mate.

Each couple has their strengths and weaknesses. Ahok and his deputy Djarot have proven that they are committed to transforming Jakarta into a more livable city through establishment of clean and good governance. They have shown that fighting corruption and illegal practices can be done although it has not been easy. However, the recent blasphemy case is an outcome of his weakness. Ahok’s inability to be diplomatic, without compromising his principles, has made him many enemies, who are now using his words against him. This may result from his overconfidence as proven by many polls that he was the leading candidate.

Agus can learn from his father, who used to be the number one man in this country, but that may backfire if he cannot prove that he is independent in making important decisions. He has strong support from the military and could be politically quite strong. However, Agus is still very young, and being cut short from the excellent career he was having with the army, he may not have the necessary experience in leading a civil organization. His running mate, Sylviana, should be able to support him as she herself is very experienced in managing Jakarta as mayor and recently directly under Ahok. Both have had good and clean reputation in their respective past positions. The challenges for Agus are mainly to prove that he will not be a puppet of his father, and to show that he has the necessary quality to lead Jakarta, or any other functions he may have later on. He cannot go back to the military if things don’t go well, politics is the only possible next career for him, given his background and upbringing.

People may suspect that Anies is an opportunist due to his alleged falling out with Jokowi and now being a candidate supported by Prabowo, whom he frequently criticized before the presidential election 2014. While he can gain more support at the grass-root level, he does not have a long experience being with the government. One may argue that nearly two years as a cabinet minister is more than enough but it was alleged that one of the reasons he was replaced was that he was not able to transform the basic and middle education levels fast enough to meet Jokowi’s expectations. Sandiaga, quite strangely, has been more outspoken than Anies in making promises and criticizing the incumbent, which may raise questions about how they will work together if they win the election to lead Jakarta.

A new trend among candidates for a political position is blusukan, which is a Javanese word for conducting a direct visit and observation in the field or real world. Blusukan was popularized by Jokowi when he was governor of Jakarta, and he still does it from time to time. Anies, Sandiaga and Agus have gone to visit the people of Jakarta to have a face-to-face dialogue with them to understand their problems. Many other prominent politicians have conducted it, even those who initially criticize Jokowi, saying that it is nothing more than image-building. However, seeing how effective it is to gain sympathy from the public, it has become a must-do for politicians to improve their acceptability by the people and electability. Another thing that Anies, Sandiaga and Agus have done, of course, is criticize the performance of Ahok and make promises to the public, particularly during blusukan. Many of the promises, while they have carry good intention, are simply unrealistic and would never happen. The generally positive reviews about Ahok’s governorship have forced the other candidates to do everything they can to defeat him in the election.

Some latest developments on the Jakarta election 2017 include:

  • Following the rally earlier this month, FPI has organized another rally on 2 December for the same demand: put Ahok in trial and punish him accordingly. This one is of smaller scale as many organizations from the previous rally have agreed not to participate. FPI has insisted that this has nothing to do with the election, but simply because of the blasphemy of the Holy Quran.    
  • Those who are more nationalistic in their political views participated in an event on 30 November, called Nusantara Bersatu, or United Archipelago, initiated by the Indonesian National Armed Forces, aimed at ensuring that Indonesia, which consists of different cultures and religions, will not be divided by any form of sectarian movements. This can be seen as a soft form of resistance to what FPI is trying to achieve with its rallies. This was followed by another peaceful rally on 4 December called Parade Bhinneka Tunggal Ika2, again as an effort to promote unity despite the existing differences in Indonesia. It was attended by the coalition of parties who supports Jokowi’s presidency, and has been seen as an ‘soft’ effort to support Ahok and Jokowi. 
  • As of 28 November, Ahok’s case dossier has been completed by the National Police, to be handed over to Attorney General’s Office for preparation of the trial, which has been set to be as early as the week of 5 December. At this point, Ahok is a suspect but he can still continue with his candidacy and compete with the other candidates. He is barred from travelling overseas.  
  • According to Charta Politika, who claims to be an independent political consulting firm and has recently conducted a polling on the three candidates3, Agus-Sylviana tops the poll in terms of electability with 24.4 percent vote, followed by Ahok-Djarot at 23.5 percent and Anies-Sandiaga at 19.4 percent. Nonetheless, in terms of popularity, Ahok-Djarot are ahead with 94.8 percent, followed by Agus-Sylviana at 87.5 percent and Anies-Sandiaga at 85.9 percent. 

What will happen in the next few weeks will depend on a few things. For sure, Ahok’s trial will be a significant determinant. If found guilty, he definitely will not be able to compete in the election. If not, he remains a strong favorite. It also depends on how independent the National Police and judicial system are in handling the case. If they prefer to appease the Muslim radicals, they will be lose confidence and trust from the public. Provinces from the Eastern part of Indonesia may strengthen their efforts and demands to seek separation from Indonesia as they fear that Indonesia will turn into an Islamic state if the radicals get their way. President Jokowi will have a tough time ahead in ensuring that the country remains intact.

1 For candidates running independently (not backed by any political party), the Election Supervisory Body (Badan Pengawas Pemilihan Umum, or Bawaslu) requires that they must be able to collect one million ID cards to prove that the residents support their candidacy.
2 The national slogan of Indonesia, meaning unity in diversity.
3 Taken from The survey was conducted on 17-24 November 2016, involving 733 (out of 800) respondents from the five regions of Jakarta and the Thousand Islands regency.

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